Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
The next Administration needs to do a better job of preventing contractors from bilking the government with that cost being passed onto the taxpayer. The Washington D.C. Swamp loves the massive contracts they secure for clients that end up costing the taxpayer with inflated costs and padded numbers.
Think about it this way – if a contractor installed a leaky sink in your house, you wouldn’t turn around and hire it to install a toilet. Instead, you’d insist that the contractor fix the mistake (at no charge), and you would hire a different contractor, one who does quality work, for future projects.
Unfortunately, that’s not how things work in the world of federal defense contracting.
Some contractors calibrate their Pentagon contracts around the idea that the contractor is simply “too big to fail.” They know that even if they deliver weapon systems that don’t work, they can turn around and charge Uncle Sam even more to repair those systems.
There are plenty of examples, but let’s consider just two that make the point.
Defense News, a trade publication, is tracking issues with the propulsion train on the Navy’s Freedom-class littoral combat ships. But that problem isn’t the first issue that has sidelined this entire class of ships. “Navy leaders have tried repeatedly to set the program aright only to be confronted with stubborn challenges ranging from unreliable engineering plants to glacial development progress on the sensor packages that would give the ships credible warfighting capabilities,” Defense News wrote last year.
This is somewhat worse than a leaky sink. Place a bucket underneath that sink and you can at least keep washing the dishes. This is a program where a contractor has delivered a series of ships that are not sea-worthy. Brave American men and women are serving aboard the Freedom-class ships, and are finding their vessels limited to no more than 10 knots. Imagine if hostilities break out while these Navy ships are at sea; they would be sitting ducks.
Defense News explains that the Navy is still investigating how much it will cost to fix the problems and who should pay for the repairs, but it seems obvious that the contractor, Lockheed Martin, should pay to fix the system that it designed and sold to the Pentagon in the first place.
Lockheed is also responsible for what is probably the biggest boondoggle in defense contracting history: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Our military signed up for the JSF with the idea that it would be a single jet that could replace several different classes of fighters and perform a range of important tasks. It could do what the Navy needed (land on carriers), what the Marines needed (take off vertically) and attack over long ranges (Air Force). It would also, of course, have the latest in stealth technology.
However, the JSF has ended up costing far more than anyone could have imagined. It went into production before it had proven itself, so many jets had to be sent back and retrofitted. It wasn’t able to carry out its missions, so older jets remained in service while military pilots tried to iron out the problems. Meanwhile, Lockheed kept making money off the updates to its faulty platform.
In 2018, Lockheed won a $1.4 billion contract to provide “air system maintenance; pilot and maintainer training; depot activation; sustaining engineering; Automatic Logistics Information System (ALIS) support, data analytics and predictive health management; and supply chain logistics” for the jets.
“We are taking aggressive actions to improve F-35 aircraft availability and reduce sustainment costs,” a Lockheed spokesperson told Defense News. “As the sustainment system matures and the size of the operational fleet grows, we are confident we will deliver more capability at less cost than legacy aircraft.”
That somehow seems like less than the least the contractor should do.
There are not many military contractors, so indeed they can seem to be too big to fail. However, when they do fail, they should pay the price to make things right. Because the other thing that is too big (and too important) to fail is our military. Contractors should remember what they are working for: not money, but national security. It’s a mission that’s too important to leave vulnerable to failure.
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